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Birmingham Uni beefs up network automation, virtualisation to support research

The University of Birmingham has deployed a Brocade switching infrastructure and network virtualisation to support the needs of its research teams

The University of Birmingham, one of the UK’s leading research universities, has deployed a new, separate network to support the high data demands made by its research teams and minimise their impact on the day-to-day running of the corporate campus network.

With a long history of research – the university counts eight Nobel Prize winners among its alumni and former staff – it has pioneered the development of, among other things, microwaves and transplant surgery. It’s also currently leading research into potential vaccines for cancer.

According to Simon Thompson, the university’s research computing infrastructure architect, the amount of data produced in the course of modern-day research was starting to have a negative impact on the day-to-day running of the university’s corporate network.

“We had a number of researchers causing problems by storing data to central computers or national repositories,” says Thompson.

There was also a need to make sure medical research data was as secure as possible, as it’s often patient-specific and highly confidential. Birmingham University therefore elected to build an entirely separate network to support the needs of its research teams.

It picked Brocade’s VDX 6740 and 6740T fabric switches, running its virtual cluster switching (VCS) fabric. The switches use the cross-domain workflow capabilities of Brocade’s Workflow Composer network automation platform, while the VCS fabric provides high levels of automation, efficiency and resilience.

Additionally, the top-of-rack switches support one, 10 and 40 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) ports, which means the university can better support cloud, virtualisation and mobility. They also deliver support for open standards and extensive scalability, which the university hopes will save on time and cost.

Thompson, who primarily deals with high-performance computing and research data systems, says the network automation aspect is particularly compelling, as it enables a more hands-off approach to the day-to-day running of the network.

“This ability to have traffic flow anywhere between switches helps reduce time spent on management and design”
Simon Thompson, University of Birmingham

“One feature we particularly like is the inter-switch link (ISL) capability of the switches. Combined with the VCS fabric, it blows away the traditional tree structure of a network and enables the plug-and-play of switches across the fabric,” he explains.

“If an ISL fails between two switches, and there is another path over the fabric, the switch will just kick over to using that instead. This ability to have traffic flow anywhere between switches helps reduce time spent on management and design.

“It simplifies how we put our network together,” he concludes. “Our team doesn’t have to worry about some of the problems it used to see.”

More universities to adopt network automation

According to Amit Samani, regional sales manager at Brocade’s education business, more universities are thinking of making the switch to network automation and virtualisation.

This has come partly in response to the 2015 uncapping of student numbers, which has introduced an element of unpredictability to university business models. It’s led many to believe they need to do more to attract research funding to their campuses. Samani says network upgrades, particularly to virtualised networking, are a fast and easy way to do this.

Read more about networking in universities

“Researchers don’t exactly care about the network, but they do want as much bandwidth as possible. Universities want to market the quality of their environment,” he says.

Samani says Brocade is already engaging with other universities about similar projects, as more look to appeal to research scientists through marketing improvements to their network as a service enhancement.

Noting parents’ anecdotes of students calling university IT departments to complain about slow broadband in halls of residence, he says there is potential for universities to apply the same benefits to the rest of their networking infrastructure too.

Read more on Software-defined networking (SDN)